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Documentary Sheds Light on History of Richmond Gay Community

Title screen of "Meet Me by the Magnolia Tree"
"Meet Me by the Magnolia Tree" is a new documentary from students at VCU's Robertson School of Media and Culture. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Fluet)

“Meet Me by the Magnolia Tree” is a new student documentary on the history of Richmond’s gay community and the role cruising played in places like Byrd Park, the Block, and Battle Abbey.

Bill Harrison, president and executive director of LGBTQ non-profit Diversity Richmond, appeared in the documentary. He said, “Back in the 1960s, 1970s the world was very different for what we knew then as the 'gay community,' and there were no organizations here in Richmond, there were no groups you could belong to.”

But, Harrison says men still found ways to connect, at least sexually, in semi-public spaces through “cruising.” “The Block downtown, and Byrd Park and Bryan Park here in Richmond were three of the areas that were pretty heavily frequented, especially during the summer months, later at night,” Harrison said.

The film’s director, Ben Fluet, is a recent graduate of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Inspiration for the film’s title came from one particular cruising area in Richmond’s Museum District. Fluet says, “Where the Virginia Museum of History and Culture presently is, there used to be... just a huge Magnolia grove. And there were rows and rows of them. And back in the day, it was one of the more hidden and secretive places that people would go and cruise in.”

“I was really drawn to the idea of Magnolia trees, you know, and their role in how it concealed kind of what was going on,” they say. Fluet says cruising played a significant role in the gay community in the sixties, seventies and eighties, before the repeal of laws criminalizing homosexuality. “It served as a means for closeted men to go out and have sex with other gay men, closeted or not closeted.”

Harrison says the community has come a long way since the days of the Block and Battle Abbey: “It's changed because society has become more educated, our community has helped the community become educated. We're much more understood now, and much more widely accepted, and so men are not finding themselves having to search out each other that way. There are healthy ways to meet people.”

During the heyday of cruising, many gay men were subject to police intimidation, which could include the threat of arrest and public identification in prominent newspapers. Harrison says that although much has changed since then, police relations remain an issue for many members of the LGBTQ community, “I don't think that you're going to find many police officers riding around Byrd Park, mainly because there's no reason to do that any longer as far as gay men meeting each other there for sexual reasons. Now the racial issues and police is a whole 'nother conversation, and we have many people of color within our community that have very serious and true stories about mistreatment by police officers.”

Dr. Madison Moore, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at VCU, also contributed to the film “Meet Me by the Magnolia Tree.”  In the documentary, he said that policing of queer communities often leads to unintended outcomes. “It’s kind of comical in the way that that works, that like you think that by having entrapment laws or that by making something illegal it’s gonna stop a practice, and actually that makes it more underground and pushes it deeper out of sight,” Moore said.

 “It's more than just ‘I wanna hook up for sex.’ It's needing companionship, it's needing friendship, it's needing community.”

Harrison says the documentary handled a sensitive topic well, bringing nuance to an often overlooked history. “I think with documentaries like this it's important for viewers - you know, you can read a headline in the newspaper and that's where you get your information - this was a rather complicated subject,” Harrison says. “It's more than just ‘I wanna hook up for sex.’ It's needing companionship, it's needing friendship, it's needing community.”

In the end, Fluet says that looking back on the history of cruising can help us not only understand the past, but also point towards a better future.

“Meet Me by the Magnolia Tree” can also be streamed on Youtube.

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